Libraries are about physical spaces. That’s what the public values about them. Campaign after campaign has started not necessarily because of threatened withdrawal to services, although this undoubtedly plays a part, but because of the danger to the actual library building itself. The threat, or even the perceived threat, of closure is what galvanises public reaction.
The difficulty for public libraries is the same as for many public spaces, in that they act as “a shared resource in which experiences and value are created. These social advantages may not be obvious to outsiders or public policy makers.”
The report from which the above quote is taken, The social value of public spaces by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation goes on to state that:
“To members of the public, it is not the ownership of places or their appearance that makes them ‘public’, but their shared use for a diverse range of activities by a range of different people.”
The report identified a range of such spaces, from school gates to boot sales, to shopping malls and community centres, where people met to create spaces of engagement.
To this group I would very firmly add libraries. The tendency amongst policy makers over the past few years to insist that libraries become ‘community hubs’ misses a vital point: libraries are and have always been social hubs of their communities.
Over the years public libraries have offered an increasing range of services to reflect evolving societal and technological changes. Libraries now, quite rightly, offer 24 hours access to online services, support local and national government ‘digital by default’ agendas, provide e-books and e-magazines, online resources and academic journals, 3D printers and coding clubs, digital literacy and computers, and enable digital citizenship. But all of these services can be delivered outwith the library space, which has led some to conclude that libraries, as a concept, are outdated and anachronistic.
But beyond the technology what the public really values is the library as a community space and social hub. Campaigners and volunteers understand this better sometimes than the profession itself. When looking at the range of activities and services on offer in community libraries there is nearly always a tendency to concentrate on the social value of the library as a physical space. The bringing together of people and activities that enable social cohesion and engagement such as reading groups, coffee mornings, knit & natter, film clubs, creative writing, and as a community meeting space.
The MLA report What do the public want from libraries showed something similar in that people who used public libraries valued the social contact they provided. Equally, the ACE report Envisioning the Library of the Future recognised public libraries as trusted spaces, free and open to all, and as “a safe, free, creative community space that is enjoyable and easy to use, both physically and virtually.”
For some this would indicate that community centres or hubs providing a combination of council services could fulfil the same function. This is true in some respects and libraries can be successfully relocated within shared space or co-located with complementary services. However, the opposite is also true and I would argue that there is something intrinsically unique about the library as a social space that is diluted when its core purpose is subsumed within an array of non-related services or facilities.
The public still value libraries and value them as a physical space. Those responsible for reshaping library networks within current financial constraints need to acknowledge that re-location, co-location or closure runs the risk of weakening existing social networks within libraries and undermining the very community resilience they seek to build.